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As childhood obesity soars among low-income communities with limited access to fresh produce, some educators in Colorado are combating the problem by joining the farm-to-preschool movement. Now these preschoolers are learning their ABCs while picking veggies from the school garden and preparing healthy meals. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.
But first: a look at an effort to prevent childhood obesity by adding food gardening to the curriculum in Colorado preschools.
Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report.
It's for our weekly series on education and schools, Making the Grade.
It's an old classroom sing-along with a new twist, MacDonald's animals replaced by vegetables.
Children in this Pueblo, Colorado, preschool are learning the ABCs of locally grown produce.
Vegetables take center stage in everything from the vocabulary they learn to the art they create and the plays they perform.
One day, the farmer went out to pull it, and they pull, and out popped a great big zucchini.
We're really bringing farm-to-preschool to Colorado.
Brittany Martens is the nutrition educator for a new preschool program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture called CHOP, an acronym for Cooking up Healthy Options with Plants.
It's an effort by the Colorado Health Department to combat childhood obesity with hands-on farming. And it's part of a growing farm-to-preschool movement in early education centers.
Children in Colorado are not eating the recommended amount of fresh fruits and vegetables.
I see something yellow right here.
The centerpiece of CHOP's curriculum is a garden grown by preschoolers.
We want to take these things from the garden and make it a norm on their plate, so it's not like an alien. It's no longer the hated squash. It's now something that they have grown, they have picked, they have harvested, and they're going to be more willing to try it.
One in five Colorado children ages 2 to 4 are obese. The problem is particularly pronounced in low-income and heavily Hispanic communities, like the neighborhood that surrounds Pueblo's East Side Child Care Center.
Maria Subia is the center's director:
Over 80 percent of the children that come here are from low-income family households, between 70 percent and 80 percent with a Hispanic heritage.
Let's pull out this kale.
Health officials hope early exposure to vegetables will lead children away from high-calorie processed food linked to obesity.
Children of this age are so naturally curious. They're so inquisitive and just really in touch with the world. They love dirt and worms.
These children have a connection with the earth. They get to put a seed in the dirt and watch it sprout and blossom, and then that blossom turns into a vegetable.
So, what do we use to cut up our squash?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 40 percent of obese children remain obese into adolescence, and 75 percent of adolescents go on to become obese adults, facing increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.
For our luncheon tomorrow.
Nicole Cawrse manages the Women, Infants, and Children program, known as WIC, in Pueblo.
The chance of becoming an obese adult substantially increases once you hit the age of 8.
But for families that live near Pueblo's East Side Child Care Center, buying fresh and nutritious food isn't always easy, especially if you don't own a car.
The East Side in Pueblo is the poorest neighborhood in town.
David Hovar, from the nonprofit NeighborWorks Southern Colorado, is working to connect Pueblo's East Side residents with fresh produce, after their only grocery store was shuttered more than a year ago.
This is the Dollar General. This has kind of become the food source for this area. When you go in, it's typical packaged foods. They have refrigerated drinks and shelf stable stuff. But there aren't any fresh fruits and vegetables.
The bus system ends at about 5 p.m. every day, and so it doesn't run on the weekends either. So, I figure, if you're working, and you don't have a way to get around, it kind of creates this little island after 5, and there's nowhere to go for fresh food.
You got to pull it down, same thing, and then you got to turn it. Good job.
Many of the children at East Side Child Care Center receive the majority of their daily food here.
Oh, look, there's a ladybug on it.
But for parents and educators, the new gardens are also an opportunity for learning that goes beyond nutrition.
Fawn Montoya says planting has taught her daughter, Cecilia (ph), new concepts at an early age.
I think math is one of the biggest things, right, how far apart the seeds are from each other, how many seeds do you actually put in the ground, how far in the ground? So, is it a half-an-inch, is it a quarter-of-an-inch?
And then they're also having the conversations about the science behind it, the concept that the sun is needed to actually grow the plants, and the water is needed to grow the plants.
Tell your mom and dad, or your grandma and grandpa, or your aunts and uncles that you used a metate.
On this day, Montoya taught children how to grind corn with a stone metate, a process she hopes will connect children to history, as well as their own Mexican heritage.
I'm hoping, when they go home and talk about it, that their parents might have seen it before, so it might start a conversation in the home as far as what their family members ate and what their family grew, that cultural history around food.
In the coming years, health department officials hope to expand CHOP's preschool project statewide.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Cat Wise in Pueblo, Colorado.
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